For a new professional or clinician, working with combat Veterans can be a real challenge. Understanding the nature and constructs of the combat Veterans perspective is critical. In order to gain an understanding, a new clinician may want to conceptualize a primary perspective; really putting themselves in the boots of a combat Veteran. The perspective relates to the Veteran’s military service and tactics; the constructs of what every combat Veteran knows as “the wire” or “the perimeter.”
Under combat conditions, the wire or perimeter is a perceived safe haven within and surrounded by chaos. It is where a combat Veteran feels safer. Where they are able to gain some rest, safety, food, belonging, shelter, etc. They are able to continue meeting their basic needs through the existence of the perimeter; surrounded by razor wire or even as mobile informal perimeters on patrol. It is the haven that allows them to continue surviving. In combat, this haven reduces their emotional and physical vulnerability, gives them a sense of control and allows them to emotionally re-orientate themselves feeling less powerless and helpless. Ask any combat Veteran and they will tell you their worst fear is to be over run by the enemy… for the perimeter to dissolve, and for them to find themselves alone behind enemy lines with no one to watch their nine, six or three. Regardless of how large or small, the perimeter means surviving; it means being less vulnerable; it also means many different things to each and every Veteran based upon their personal combat experiences, which should truly be assessed.
The emotional perimeter seems to have developed and is reinforced due to its psychological representation and the Veterans beliefs about physical and emotional integrity during the intense emotional experiences in combat. Due to a Veteran’s traumatic, life threatening experiences and the modification of what they believe about themselves, others and the world in regards to their needs of power, esteem, safety, trust and intimacy (Rotter, 1954), it’s no wonder why protecting the emotional perimeter today is so important to them.
When you begin a relationship with a combat Veteran, keep in mind that you are outside the perimeter and we all know who is outside the perimeter……. the enemy of course; those who cannot be trusted. In order to be trusted when outside the perimeter, you must as every combat Veteran knows…. approach the perimeter carefully, and you must know the challenge word. Yes, the challenge word that everyone knows and has been set inside the perimeter as a password for those who go in and out of the perimeter. I assure you, as a clinician; you will be challenged at the gate, the wire or perimeter. If you seemed threatening during your approach, if you did not know the challenge word…. if you did not build the trust and rapport you need to gain access to this “emotional perimeter,” I assure you… you will not get in.
When you as a clinician or any professional ask combat Veteran’s to trust you in any form; you ask them to open their perimeter… your asking them to accept becoming vulnerable; to accept losing some form of power and control; to accept risk in trusting and to feel emotions they have long avoided within their perceived need to continue surviving rather than living their lives in “the here and now.” Because you ask them to become vulnerable and because they are continually finding themselves through emotions, memories and cognitions reliving the events of their past…. your asking them to risk what is perceived to them as their emotional lives in a time where they perceive to continually be surviving rather than living. Always keep in mind, you are asking a lot… step lightly, but strategically.
L.J. Riley Jr. is a Michigan native, a graduate of Davison High School, a graduate of the U.S. Army Combat Infantry School, Bradley Fighting Vehicle School and Dragon Missile School. L.J. or John Riley is a combat veteran and served in Oper. Desert Shield / Storm. He left the military and enrolled at Mott Community College, graduating with Phi Theta Kappa and pursuing a BSW at the University of Michigan Flint where he won the “Maize and Blue” Scholar Award. L.J. then was accepted to the one year Masters program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor MSW Program for clinical social work. He graduated in 2007 with a 4.0 and the acceptance of the Howard and Judith Simms Fellowship. L.J. is currently a Combat Readjustment Therapist and works to help those Veterans suffering from PTSD and Post Military Readjustment.